Launched in 2000, the Debut Prize is an independent literary award for authors under 35 years of age. It is supported by the Pokolenie Foundation, founded in 1996 by politician and philanthropist Andrei Skoch. So far, 73 works have won from the 50,000-plus entries received each year. The original prize money of 200,000 rubles (or $7,000) was increased to one million ($34,000) last year in order to attract even more participants. Winners are announced at the annual award ceremony usually held in early December. In 2011, the winners were Vladislav Pasechnik (for major prose), Eduard Lukoyanov (short prose), Andrei Bauman (poetry), Marianna Ionova (essays), Anna Leonidova (sci-fi/fantasy) and Ekaterina Vasilieva (drama).
Debut's director is novelist Olga Slavnikova, the 2006 Russian Booker Prize winner with her book "2017." In 2010, she initiated an international translation and promotional program to introduce Debut Prize winners to overseas readers, and she roped in publisher Natasha Perova, of GLAS, to help the program realize its goals. Slavnikova and Perova share their thoughts on the literary prize, young writers in Russia, and more.
Aside from the age limit, are there any other rules imposed by the Debut Prize?
Olga Slavnikova: Talent is the only other criterion. The author's nationality or political views play no role. Nor do we favor a particular style, theme, or creative strategy.
Do you accept manuscripts or only published works?
OS: We readily accept unpublished works. Once the winners are announced, we make every effort to help them get published because Russian publishers in general are in no hurry to publish unknown authors. We publish anthologies with some of the winning titles as well as outstanding works by finalists.
How many titles by Debut winners have been published by GLAS in English?
Natasha Perova: So far, six titles have been published—four anthologies and two novels. They are "Squaring the Circle" with 12 authors, "Mendeleev Rock" with two, "Off the Beaten Track: Stories by Russian Hitchhikers" with three, "Still Waters Run Deep" with seven women writers, [along with] "Sense" by Arslan Khasavov and "Petroleum Venus" by Alexander Snegirev. Anna Leonidova's detective novel "Before I Croak" is in the works.
What about other languages?
NP: Not all winners and finalists are translated, and only a few get translated into more than one language. Two collections—"Squaring the Circle" [the first collection of stories by selected Debut writers] and "Cairo International"—are available in Chinese, launched at the 2010 and 2011 Beijing Book Fair respectively. The third collection, "Still Waters," will be out in Chinese in time for the upcoming Beijing fair. Debut anthologies are available in German from Suhrkamp, Spanish from Parramon, and French from France-Oural/GLAS. The Italian and Swedish versions, from Marco Tropea Editore and Erzats respectively, will be out by this fall. The anthologies for different markets do not feature the same authors, as we pick those that are best for each territory. In total, GLAS has presented more than 50 Debut authors in various languages.
Do Debut authors turn to self-publishing? And how is self-publishing in Russia, by the way?
OS: Many Debut authors have enough material for a book or two, and failing to find a publisher, they often make it available on the Web, where an outstanding work can easily get lost in the sea of online garbage. In the provinces, writers often find sponsors to subsidize the publication of their books. But booksellers rarely carry these titles. Back in the 1990s, a self-published author would stand in an underground passage and often sell more copies per day than what a bookshop now can do with some bestsellers. In those days, people regarded books as something in short supply that they should immediately grab. Today, authors turn to self-publishing mostly for economic reasons. However, such books often have little impact on the overall literary scene.
Has the quality of winning works improved since the first Debut Prize?
OS: Now that the age limit has been extended to 35—it was 25 until 2011—the authors are obviously more mature and participants from previous years could try again. But I would not say that they have more talent than their younger counterparts. The 20-year-olds seem to be more promising. Interesting new names pop up every year. For me, the best discovery in the latest round is Sergei Bushmanov, a well-traveled geophysicist whose nonfiction work is both artistic and informative.
Are publishers and readers in Russia and overseas more aware of the Debut Prize now?
OS: Big publishers are certainly paying more attention to Debut authors. Books by Alisa Ganieva, Irina Bogatyreva, and Igor Savelyev are among the latest to be published, thus reaching a much wider audience. Yet since reader interest in literary fiction is going down—here in Russia and globally—we feel like we are going up the down staircase.
NP: Young writers seem to be more exportable. Living in the borderless and wired world, young writers worldwide increasingly have more in common. The Internet allows them to live in their native land and write about what they know best without making any judgment for the reader. This makes their writings an interesting source of information for Russian and foreign readers.
So how is "Squaring the Circle" doing in Russia and overseas?
NP: The total print run for each language edition is about 2,000 copies. It may seem rather modest, but we are talking about unknown young authors translated from Russian.
OS: In Russia, literary success does not necessarily mean huge print runs. Certain books will never be bestsellers with the kind of volume seen in the Western world, and will not win mass readership. This reminds me of one incident while promoting Debut titles in the U.S., where someone asked me, "Why should I read this book if the author makes no attempt to entertain me?" Well, it is true that you want to read a book that is entertaining. But literature as an art form does not set itself out to be entertaining. Still, I am convinced that Debut books tell something important to the foreign reader, and I often come across such instances.
NP: In Germany, Suhrkamp was quite surprised by the huge press attention and reader enthusiasm. They will need to reprint "Das schönste Proletariat der Welt" pretty soon. They have just obtained the world rights to Alisa Ganieva's new novel, "The Happy Hill," and will be publishing another Debut collection. In Spain, editor Ricardo San Vicente, the country's leading Russian literature expert, said he had not seen such enthusiasm for anything Russian in the past 20 years. Thinking back, when the Debut Prize approached me to publish its winners in English for the international market, I agreed mainly out of curiosity. Now I find that these authors offer much food for thought, and I feel compelled to share their writings with readers abroad.
OS: As for China, it is increasingly turning to the West in terms of aesthetics, despite ideological differences. They still love Soviet writers and Soviet-themed publications, though. The two Debut collections that have been presented there have elicited interest in contemporary Russian literature. Discussions between young Chinese readers and our Debut authors at Beijing fairs attracted big, enthusiastic crowds.
I take it that many Debut winners have gone on to produce longer and newer works.
NP: Yes, and we have created an extensive database of translated material from these authors that can be used by overseas publishers for reference and review. Let me cite some examples: Alisa Ganieva's "Salam, Dalgat" is now available in English, German, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, and French, and "The Happy Hill," as mentioned earlier, will be taken worldwide by Suhrkamp. London-based Interactive Media has just released Pavel Kostin's new novel, "It's Time," and is currently working on Andrei Kuzechkin's new work, "Young 4 Ever." Both authors' earlier novellas were first published by GLAS.
Name two Debut Prize authors that impress you with their depth of writing and thoughts.
NP: I would name Arkady Babchenko for his poignant memoirs of the Chechen war, and Alisa Ganieva for her graphic description of modern-day Dagestan using street talk and colloquialisms.
OS: Two is too few. My favorite is Igor Savelyev, who writes thoughtful stories about his peers. He treats life very seriously and, after a long period of dominant irony in Russian writing, such seriousness feels fresh and brave. Yaroslava Pulinovich is my next favorite. A young dramatist from my native city of Yekaterinburg, she will probably become the next Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who is known for her superb writings on human suffering.
What fascinates you most about these young authors and their works?
NP: Their energy and their search for an identity and place within a fast-changing and often hostile world. Whereas we had Soviet versus anti-Soviet literature in the old days, now we have literature about the here and now that is no longer fighting with our Soviet heritage. I often hear from overseas readers that they are not getting books from Russia about present-day experiences. Well, they are here now—these are books by young writers in their late 20s and early 30s.
OS: I have already mentioned the element of freshness. There are no dominant styles in the literature of the young: no socialist realism or postmodernism. These are contemporary Russian authors who acknowledge the right to follow one's own path—hence the great variety of styles, strategies, and techniques, and these coexist in harmony. Russian literature going forward will show more freedom of expression.